The impact of air operations


A discussion on the AHF (linked here) allows us to track individual unit strength of Luftwaffe (GAF) units during the campaign.  This is based on three snapshots, on 11 October (before Coningham’s air campaign in support of Crusader started), on 27 November (from an ULTRA intercept, after more than a week of operations), and on 27 December, after the retreat from Tobruk and the fall of Benghazi.


German Ju 87 Stukas being readied for an operation, date, location, and unit unknown. Probably early 1941. Collection.


There are some important observations to be made.  First of all, despite a major effort by the Allies, neither availability nor serviciability of the major types dropped significantly (with the exception of the Ju 88).  This is likely because of a major effort in reinforcement, bringing in additional flights and squadrons, especially of dive bombers and destroyers. For the Italian air force, I have some data, which will be posted in a separate post.

On 27 December the longer range strike planes had disappeared – this is a reflection of the fuel situation and the retreat, which made it pointless to keep planes based in North Africa that could operate towards key targets such as Tobruk from Greece and Crete. It also reflected the difficulty of keeping the strike force operational in a remote theatre.

It is very interesting to see the effect of reinforcement on the destroyer availability.  This is likely because these planes were used to protect convoys against air- and/or seaborne attack (with mixed results, one might add). 


Overall these numbers tell an interesting story, but it may not be the one usually told. What they miss are the temporary reinforcements that came and went in the period. While the initial reaction by the Luftwaffe was to immediately reinforce North Africa with large numbers of all types of planes, within two weeks it had become clear that the fuel and overall supply situation did not allow this reinforced contingent to be maintained, and many of the planes were withdrawn again to Italy or Greece. Ju 88 could more easily strike targets operating from their base in Tatoi, Athens, with Heraklion on Crete as a jumping off point for refueling, while fighters were needed to escort the strike forces attacking Malta from Sicily.

Unit Overview

The list is by unit, with the first number indicating planes present with the unit, and the second serviceable.

Tactical Reconnaissance

2. (H) 14 (specialised short-range reconnaissance)

  • 11 Oct 21/6 Bf 110C-4 and Hs 126
  • 27 Nov (data not available due to communications breakdown)
  • 27 December 20/12 Bf 110C-4 and Hs 126

Single-Engine Fighters

I./JG 27 (single-engined fighters)

  • 11 Oct 31/17 Bf 109E-7 Trop (about to be phased out)
  • 27 Nov unchanged from day before (which is not available)
  • 27 December 24/10 Bf 109F-4 (these were a substantial upgrade in terms of capability)

II./JG 27 (single-engined fighters) minus 6./JG27

  • 11 Oct 28/13 Bf 109F-4 Trop
  • 27 Nov 19/12 Bf 109 F-4 Trop
  • 27 December 24/10 Bf 109F-4 Trop

Heavy Fighters

Staff ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 2/2 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

7./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 9/8 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

8./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct 12/8 Bf 110D-3
  • 27 Nov 7/5 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (not available, unit may have been withdrawn at this point)

9./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (not available – unit may not have been in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 5/4 Bf 110 C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

Medium Bombers

III./LG 1 (twin-engined medium bombers )

  • 11 Oct 31/15 Ju 88 A-4 Trop
  • 27 Nov 27/2 Ju 88 (with 3 more aircraft in Derna after diverting)
  • 27 December (not available – unit withdrawn from theatre)

Dive Bombers

I./StG 1 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 39/26 Ju 87 B-1
  • 27 Nov 27/18 Ju 87 + 1 Cant. 445
  • 27 December 32/17 Ju 87 B-1

II./StG 1 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 31/26 Ju 87 B-1
  • 27 Nov 26/17 Ju 87 R-2/4
  • 27 December  (not available – unit may not have been in theatre)

Staff StG 3 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 7/2 Ju 87 B-1 and He 111 (twin-engined medium bomber acting as courier plane)
  • 27 Nov 3/? Ju 87 R2/4 + 3/? Bf 110C + 4/? He 111 H5/6 + 1/? Bf 108 (liaison)
  • 27 December  9/5 Ju 87 B-1 and He 111 

I./StG 3 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct (not available – unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 26/23 Ju 87 R2/4
  • 27 December 30/18 Ju 87


Additional information for 27 November:


10 KG zbV 1 (Transport)

  • Ju 52 12/0 with 4 aircraft on operations

Liaison Flight JG27(?)

  • No information

Staff flight Fliegerführer

  • Me 110C 1/0


  • Ju 52 1/0
  • C 445 9/0
  • FH 104 1/0
  • Me 108 1/0
  • Fi 156 1/0

Desert Rescue Squadron

  • Fi 156 8/4 of which 1 in Benina, 3 in Derna

Tabular Overview

The table below is based on the numbers above, but is not 100% accurate.  I calculated this myself. Note that the 27 November number for the Bf 109 type is understating the issue, since the data was missing from the ULTRA intercept. Also note that qualitatively the Bf 109 underwent an improvement during the battle, with the I./JG27 reporting 31 ‘Emils’, an earlier type of the Bf109, while by 27 December they reported 24 BF 109F, a much improved type, which was superior to anything the Commonwealth forces fielded in the North African theatre at the time. This of course depends on the 11 October type info being correct, something which I am having serious doubts about (it is apparently from RIng & Shore “Fighters over the Desert”.


Availability chart for major types in Africa during Crusader

Availability chart for major types in Africa during Crusader.

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